Active cooling solutions are emerging for upcoming PCIe 5.0 SSDs

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(Image: Ithome)
We love SSDs for so many reasons: they are silent, they move data so much faster than hard drives that it is sometimes orgasmic, they are tiny and easy to store by the way, they are affordable in reasonable capacities, and they are not get very hot, or at least the current models do not. While all of these features will remain true for the foreseeable future, the latter may soon become a “legacy feature” with the advent of power-intensive PCIe 5.0 SSDs. As CES 2022 approaches, manufacturers have begun announcing radical cooling products for SSDs that were previously seen as something new, but which may become more prominent as drive performance rapidly escalates.

As a refresher, PCIe 5.0 should hit the scene in the 1st quarter of 2022, and it’s more than just a modest bump in spec compared to PCIe 4.0. As before, the maximum theoretical performance is expected to double. So instead of 7 Gb / s read and write speeds, the next generation standard goes all the way to 11 14 GB / s for an x4 connection, making it a big performance leap and an instant upgrade choice for many hardcore PC users.

The only problem is that upgrading may not be as easy as you think it will be. Companies have already started advertising active cooling solutions for these barn burner drives (i.e. coolers with rotating fans attached to them). This is a bit of an upgrade to the heatsinks that many companies have previously used on their drives, which are typically passive and have no fans. The heat sink absorbs the heat from the drive and radiates it away via airflow inside the chassis in an attempt to prevent the drives from throttling under heavy workloads.

When throttling occurs, performance is reduced, just as the process works with CPUs, GPUs, etc. The problems with SSDs are especially that they are located in a hot environment in the first place, such as next to a GPU on a desktop, or squeezed inside a laptop so there is usually not much cool air swirling around. Second, they can generate a lot of heat in a very small area inside the drive where things like heat spreaders and such come into play.

This brings us to the latest M.2 PCIe SSD cooler from Qiao Sibo, which is a real fan for your drive. This type of cooler sucks air into a chamber and then discharges it in one direction, which is usually towards the rear of the chassis or outside the chassis in the case of GPU coolers with a similar design. According to Tom’s Hardware, the cooler is mounted on the SSD and sucks the heat into its case, after which it sucks it out using a fan that spins at 3,000 rpm at 27 dBA. The fan can move 4.81 CFM of air, which is typically modest but still overkill for an SSD. This is because a normal workload for a home user leaves an SSD idle most of the time, with outbreaks of activity when the person decides to access the drive.

How long will it take before we need a custom loop for our SSDs? (Image: IThome)

Since PCIe 5.0 will theoretically offer dual performance of today’s drives, it will definitely require more power and thus generate more heat. So does this mean that this new generation of drives will be transformed from the lukewarm devices they are today into power-hungry, active-cooling needs for hell? The answer is that it’s somewhat murky at the moment, but it’s safe to say that since some of today’s fastest drives can hit 80C under a hard workload, a logical conclusion is that the next generation may require more robust cooling than our current options, which typically just heatsinks. If starting these new drives requires something more extravagant, it may limit the number of SSDs people can connect to their motherboards, as an M.2 drive usually goes over the GPU, but the rest must fit between the PCIe slots, which can prove to be problematic for people with thin GPUs or other add-on cards.

Some PCIe 4.0 SSDs already include fairly powerful cooling solutions. (Image: Corsair)

Still, there is some evidence that PCIe 5.0 may not require it to much more power than PCIe 4.0. For example, Samsung says its first PCIe 5.0 drive is 30 percent more efficient than the previous generation, but that gives no figures. Also, a company called Fadu has released info on its first PCIe 5.0 SSD, and it also has an average power of 5.2w according to Tom’s Hardware. This is hardly a scenario that requires active cooling – provided that the maximum energy production is not dramatically higher.

In the end, we just have to wait and see how these drives fare to draw conclusions. Perhaps SSDs will follow the same path as GPUs, which started with bare chips on a PCB and then evolved into the hulking, actively cooled monstrosities we use today. We certainly hope that is not the case, but if SSDs can improve the performance over time that GPUs have, it would actually be a fair trade-off to have a separate cooler for them.

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